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The Politics of Exclusion, Welcome, and the In-between: A Critical Look at America’s Walls and Refugee Resettlement Law

By Salam Al Sayed

Photo of hole in chainlink fence with sun behind

In the third and last CRiCS Research Talk for the year, two presenters from different disciplines took up varied sites of cultural production in their explorations of notions of exclusion and welcome. Dr. Alyson Brickey (Department of English) unpacked a snapshot of her research on the employment of walls as a metaphor in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature and their articulation through political discourse on issues such as citizenship and border security. Dr. Shauna Labman, who is a lawyer and specializes in legal scholarship, gave a critical overview of refugee resettlement law in the different spaces that her research brings her to. Both of their talks intentionally centred current events and cultural phenomena, which reflects Cultural Studies’ commitment to unsettling societal structures of hegemonic power. 

My social location perhaps helped me connect intimately with the topics explored in the talks. I migrated from Damascus, Syria to Treaty 1 territory/Winnipeg in 2011 at the start of the conflict, and a few years later I started working in social programming to support newly arrived Syrian youth and their families as they navigated their lives post-resettlement. I also volunteered with an organization that helped facilitate and process private sponsorship applications for people wanting to sponsor family members left behind. These experiences provided me with a lens to see a common thread and certain kinds of connections between the two talks. 

Dr. Brickey prompted us to think about walls as signifiers of exclusion and separation as she provided an overview of her current book project, Agony on the Divide: Reading America's Walls. Her book explores how the status quo is reflected/mirrored, reinforced, and challenged in fiction, putting American literature in conversation with political rhetoric. While Dr. Labman drew attention to the side-lining of the government refugee resettlement program in favour of the private sponsorship program and expressed concerns with how this will unfold in light of the upheaval in Ukraine. She criticized conservative moves to privatize refugee resettlement, which effectively relieves governments from obligations to resettle refugees. Dr. Labman highlights how refugee resettlement law is indeed an articulation of how governments put up and tear down walls, impacting millions of people whose lives are interrupted and shaped by forced displacement.   

Reflecting upon my own past experiences, I started thinking through some of the limitations and possibilities of the private sponsorship program. On the one hand, this program creates opportunities for meaningful connections and long-awaited, much-anticipated meetings between sponsored folks and sponsor(s), who are sometimes complete strangers meeting for the first time when the refugee arrives. On the other hand, the transactional scope of this relationship requires sponsors to play the role of professional helper and benefactor, which can limit their engagement with sponsored refugees with respect to conversations about urgent settlement needs that lie beyond sponsors’ means. Sponsored refugees and families need more than what is offered through private sponsorship in terms of broader community, social, and institutional supports.  

What I thought most daunting was what Dr. Labman called Canada’s “18-year period of humanitarian hesitation,” a time that stood as a wall separating Canada from its decision to sign off on the 1951 refugee convention. I wondered, why did it take Canada this long to officially recognize its responsibilities toward people forcibly displaced across borders? I also wondered, what are some contemporary manifestations of this period of humanitarian hesitation? For Dr. Labman, the hesitant Canadian response to the recent crisis in Afghanistan comes to mind, revealing a side of Canada at odds with the national myth of the country as a welcoming safe haven. 

Some other questions that the talks prompted me to think about include, exactly how are governments putting up and maintaining their walls to regulate the movement of refugees? What are other current cultural production sites where walls are articulated? Who are walls working for and against? And, as an audience member wondered at the end of the event, are there any instances wherein walls could serve as good boundaries? Since the reality of violent conflict and forced displacement affects people around the world every day, the issues unpacked by the presenters and the questions they raised remain as timely and pressing as they have always been.

(Thank you to Drs. Angela Failler and Sabrina Mark for your editorial assistance.)